Women Traveling Alone

Poetry Collections by
Natalie Marino, Teddy Norris, and Gaia Rajan

“As a woman I have no country…” wrote Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, “my country is the whole world.” Woolf’s spare words capture a vast idea. A women lives her life at once homeless and safely at home. She is rootless when it comes to the bluster of nationalism or tribalism. Under that tirade, she stands apart and alone. Yet a woman dwells and is deeply rooted in the universals of nature, soil, and love. Now, three new collections of poetry each express what it is to be a woman traveling her solitary way through the world.

NATALIE MARINO’s chapbook, Under Memories of Stars, distills the essences of that world into dense and economical poetry. Marino is a very fine lyric poet, part of the tradition that ranges from Sappho to Carl Phillips. Her poems use the simplest and most precise diction to work a kind of alchemy, transforming the leaden ordinary into gold. And all that glitters, lights a path to nuances of emotion as in “Joy Ride in Box Canyon”:

Before the lake disappeared,
before we knew we should wear seatbelts…

we sat loose and laughed
under a summer tangerine
sun, in back of a sparkle
blue Ford pickup…

This poem, like many of Marino’s, is a blend of affective states—bitter with sweet, married but isolated, happy but anxious. Marino’s particular skill as a lyric poet is never to aim for one uncomplicated emotion. She knows that, in truth, we always have mixed feelings. Marino has the ability to convey this complexity in very brief lines, across all types of poems. In “Our Garden at Sainte-Adresse,” she takes the often cool ekphrastic form and saturates it with the nuances of a warm but lonely love.

…we lie on a beach
like seaweed and share
the sun’s last smile

on the surface
of the old waters
of the green Mediterranean

One of Marino’s rare gifts is to express a lot in only a few lines. How she does this is a valuable point of poetic craft. Marino takes great care with her line breaks, so that the breaks themselves convey emotional complexity—doubt, hesitation, or conflict. She also knows how to minimize all the “little words” like prepositions, finely honing her poetry to contain only necessary and image-making words. Marino ensures that each line of verse is dense with meaning by watching the syllable count of her words. She rarely selects an ornate latinate word when a simple Anglo-Saxon one does the job. The result is a book of very satisfying short poems each with a snap of insight—the very core of what lyric poetry should be.

Life’s improbable journey is the theme of TEDDY NORRIS’s collection, In Transit. This is Norris’s second collection, and a more ambitious project than her first book, Pillars of Salt. Norris writes narrative poetry with an interesting twist—the music and meter of her lines is that of a lyric poet.  Elizabeth Bishop is the exemplar of this kind of poetry, and her influence is palpable in Norris’s work.

Narrative and lyricism creates exquisite, unusual poetry. In “My Mother Visits Another Country,” for example, Norris unspools a narrative of her own travel and that of her elderly mother, whose travel is interior and the result of dementia. But the poet’s lyrical streak gives us more than just the story; it gives us the somber truth that the poet must one day take her mother’s journey:

My mother never owned a bike, and yet she claims
today she covered sixty miles on her Harley, insists that Dad
was along for the ride. Mostly she enjoys these adventures,
though I’m often at a loss to follow her itinerary. Tomorrow
she’ll be off again, bright-eyed and brave, visiting places
I have yet to see.

An important part of Norris’ craft are the tools of assonance and alliteration. She never uses these techniques with a thud. Always, the touch is light, the tonality, subtle. It may very well be that Norris does not consciously build in assonance or alliteration in her lines, because the sonic effects feel natural and are never obvious. But these elements resonate in Norris’s verse, adding richness and ineffable emotion. Her craft emerges appears vividly in the poem “Greenland Is Going,” where the “G” alliteration and “ee” assonance in lines that evoke the silent scream we feel as climate change starts to bite:

In my dream, I visit Greenland.
The land is very flat, and not green.
The ground where I walk—not ice—feels spongy
and warm. Gives under my feet, like a large loaf of bread
not quite baked.

In one way or another, all the poems of In Transit travel to places that are uncomfortable. Some if these places are downright agonizing or taboo, places we can’t bear to touch, like the daily schedule a mother keeps after her child has been killed in a school shooting. Others journey to destinations from which there can be no return—the cancer diagnosis, the inexorable march of environmental degradation, even the End Times of Christian dogma. Norris’s selection these poems for In Transit is spot on and happily consonant with the title, and this harmony of choices add another level of music to the collection.

GAIA RAJAN takes readers on a strange but uniquely American trip in Killing It, winner of the 2022 Black River Chapbook Competition. Rajan is a pure narrative poet. She has a strong instinct for story-telling. To read one of her lineated or prose poems is to feel at once a sense of closure and an understanding that there is more to tell outside the narrative frame of the poem. Rajan can close the door on a story, while dropping the hint that another door is about to open. She does with a remarkable gift for syntax in the narrative, often ending poem with a phrase that flows off into an uncertain future or a desire as yet unfulfilled. Rajan does this in “Baby Girl’s Third Birthday,” a recollection of a fragmented dream where awakening is desired but yet not attained:

Everyone floated up to the moon and I couldn’t fly. I dug a small hole in the sandbox and stuck my hand in it. How long will I be drowning, I asked aloud. I was wearing big red lips. Up! Up! smiled my mother. A man put his hands on my face to see if I was bright. I like rabbits when they’re alive. I want to kill the moon. I beg the dream to let me back into my body.

In her narrative poems, Rajan tells stories and selects diction seething with the psychological and physical violence experienced by women and people of color in America. Hers is a cruel, often bizarre middle-American landscape. Rajan’s home state of Ohio is at the center; circling around it are the poet’s parents, other ancestors from her Asian family, and her experiences with a different, literary culture. A powerful example of all this is the poem “Inheritance,” one of the finest in the collection:

The gas station says enlist if you’re devoted to your country
and I forget which. God of neon signs or dead women dear god
                        o god once

I believed. Once, a girl let ghosts into her body, brushed their hair
with her antlers, and she was never lonely again. Once.

a god was anything you couldn’t see up close. I promise—
I will kneel into the brush, try to stand, just once.

Leave the porch light on for my ancestors.
No one lives just once.

Rajan’s book is not always an easy read. This is not a failing, but a result of the anguish and desolation that infuse many of the poems. The poet’s solitary journey in Killing It is harrowing one. She traverses American culture, and reports back that it’s a pretty scary place. Bleak as it can be at times, Rajan’s vision is unflinching in its honesty.

Marino, Norris, and Rajan have created books of widely varying tones, but with a shared sensibility. All three authors give voice to the complex course of a woman’s life, including the urge to remain moral and compassionate in a culture that mocks those virtues. Often, being true to this urge requires a woman to travel inward. As Marino notices in “Summer Starlight,” the hope that gleams from her grandmothers’ photo also gleams from Marino’s dancing daughters. These feelings must be held close, like “catching/fireflies/in a marmalade jar,” even though “watching time/does not stop its fall/through our fingers.”

These poets speak old and nuanced truths about the woman’s journey. We need to listen.

—Dana Delibovi